It’s not every day that I get to think of the suspenseful and thrilling 1990 movie Pacific Heights. It’s a good movie and fairly unique. The days that I do, then, are rare and special and make me smile. I was reminded of this film while watching the new Lifetime horror Evil Nanny (2016), and I smiled. A lot.
Directed by camp veteran Jared Cohn and written by Naomi Selfman, Evil Nanny is a prolonged home invasion movie with enough invention and cleverness to surprise even a horror veteran like me. The plot follows the titular Evil Nanny, played with Joan-Crawford-in-Mommy–Dearest levels of zeal by Lindsay Elston, as she goes to work for a couple, Fay and Tim (Nicole Sterling, Matthew Pohlkamp), to look after their two children.
To cover their minimal resources, the couple offers Evil Nanny free room and board. This doesn’t sound like a crucial detail, but trust me. Once the nanny moves in and begins living up to the title, you expect verbal abuse toward the children and you expect violence, but this film gives you none of it. For a while.
Naomi Selfman’s script is strangely scarier in its understanding that what truly ruins lives and frightens isn’t a creature from the black lagoon, it’s a person who won’t leave your house and knows they don’t have to. This is not a chainsaw, wire hanger, kitchen knife movie for the most part. It’s an eviction notice, restraining order, raucous metal music at 3 A.M. to keep everybody awake movie. It’s The Strangers (2008) by way of You, Me, and Dupree (2006) by way of the Lifetime Channel.
Most interestingly, you’d think a horror movie about a childcare specialist would play on a parent’s fear that anything could happen to the children, but the children are strangely on Evil Nanny’s side. This is somehow more horrifying when you think about it. Evil Nanny isn’t out to steal or slay your children. Evil Nanny is out to turn them against you.
When the couple try to evict Evil Nanny the first time, Alan (Cooper Fontaine in a surprisingly not-that-irritating performance from a child) yells at the parents for being mean to “Jen-Jen,” his nickname for Evil Nanny (who goes by many names, Jennifer being one of them. I will continue to use Evil Nanny for clarity and, well, when you have a phrase like “Evil Nanny” at your disposal, using anything else is like leaving a shotgun on the shelf, picking up a kazoo, and wandering into the zombie apocalypse).
I brought up Pacific Heights at the beginning because Evil Nanny uses the same set of tools to inflict its torture. It becomes a movie about tenants’ rights, about legality, and about the thin line between politeness and the end of human capacity to endure. While not Michael Keaton, Lindsay Elston plays the same kind of monster in the film. The cold open to Evil Nanny features a massive fire and a banging soundtrack, but the Evil Nanny we see in the next scene is older, smarter, and better equipped. She realizes, way ahead of us, that fire is for amateurs and she’s ready to go pro.
Cohn’s directing gives the film fairly pleasant rhythm as well as a consistent balance of believability and TV-movie excess from the actors. Fay and Tim are a believably in-love couple, and they are clearly being put through the ringer we the audience might not understand but can certainly feel in Nicole Sterling’s voice as it grows increasingly frantic with each scene.
What we are given with Evil Nanny is a smart Lifetime movie with a strong lead, an interesting approach to home invasion, and vague memories of a good movie from the ’90s, which is never a bad thing. Evil Nanny will air on Lifetime Movie Network on March 29th, at 8:00 pm.